Hotel Review: Hotel Casa Blanca Mexico City

Hotel Review: Hotel Casa Blanca Mexico City

Overview: While it may be fitting for those traveling on a budget, this is most definitely not a five-star hotel. Don’t let the advertising fool you: You get what you pay for.

Hotel Casa Blanca
Lafragua 7
Colonia Tabacalera
Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Mexico City, Mexico
+52 (55) 5096 4500
reservaciones@hotel-casablanca.com.mx

While Googling places to stay in Mexico City, I was surprised to find a five-star hotel (according to its website and Google, at least) for just $54/night. After reading decent reviews, I booked four nights at Hotel Casa Blanca.

The first thing that struck me about the lobby was how dark and, frankly, ugly it was. The marble floors, brown paisley benches, and giant abstract sculptures looked like they’d been put up in the 50s — and not renovated since. One consolation was that they gave out water flavored with pineapple and watermelon. The jugs were the nicest-looking things in the lobby.

I hoped my room would be more attractive, but it kept up the theme of old-looking wooden furniture and pasty, porous white walls. One window-covered wall let lots of light in, but I had to keep the sheer curtain up over it because it faced the courtyard, so people from the other rooms could look in. The mattress was firm, leading me to wake up with back pain, though the pillows were squishy. Instead of a comforter, there were two thin blankets, one woven and one softer. The atmosphere felt kind of depressing, so I turned on some TV in Spanish to lighten the mood.

hotel casa blanca mexico city

The bathroom was adequate, with bar soap, shower gel, shampoo, and conditioner, but the shower was small and a bit dark, since there was no light in there. There weren’t any electrical outlets by the bed, so I had to work from the desk if I needed to plug anything in. The WiFi was decent but a bit slow when I uploaded images and watched videos.

The lobby wasn’t well-suited for work either: The benches got crowded as guests trickled in, and the tables were low and far away from the seats. I snuck over a couple times to work from the Meridian next door, which had nice furniture, a conveniently located outlet, quicker WiFi, and a Starbucks downstairs.

My first night, I ate from the buffet at Hotel Casa Blanca’s restaurant thinking I’d get to try authentic Mexican food, but most of it was actually not Mexican: The main dishes were a confused mix of penne alla vodka, fish fillet, fried rice, mashed potatoes, and refried beans. There were a few good Mexican desserts, though, including flan, plantains with cream, and rainbow jello. Still, I’d recommend that anyone seeking good Mexican food go across the street to the restaurant in Sanborns.

Many of the hotel’s online reviews talked about its location, but other than its proximity to the Plaza de la Republica and a bunch of restaurants and food stands, I didn’t find the area to be anything special. Most of the surrounding buildings were other hotels or touristy restaurants. (At one, I got enchiladas with barely melted cheese slices on top and liquidy guacamole.) With heavy traffic and many streets missing crosswalks, just crossing the street was stressful.

While it may be fitting for those traveling on a budget, this is most definitely not a five-star hotel. Don’t let the advertising fool you: You get what you pay for. If I could go back in time, I would’ve paid twice as much for a bed I could sleep well in and an interior I liked to look at.

Rooms:

Family rooms with two double beds and two pull-out sofas available.

Uncomfortable beds.

Tech:

No outlets by the beds.
Wifi adequate but slow for video.

Family-friendly amenities:

Swimming pool on the terrace.
Bike rental available.

Food options:

Two restaurants and two bars on site.
Many restaurants and food carts nearby.

Deals and Activities Nearby:
Parking:

Free covered parking available.

Suzannah Weiss

Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer and editor currently serving as a contributing editor for Teen Vogue and a regular contributor to Glamour, Bustle, Vice, Refinery29, Elle, The Washington Post, and more. She authored a chapter of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and frequently discusses gender, sex, body image, and social justice on radio shows and podcasts. Whoopi Goldberg cited one of her articles on The View in a debate over whether expressing your desires in bed is a feminist act. (She thinks it is.)

Hotel Review: Los Naranjos Jungle Retreat

Hotel Review: Los Naranjos Jungle Retreat

Overview: If you’re a fan of the outdoors, you’ll likely find Los Naranjos Jungle Retreat a paradise. But if you’re used to hotels with mini bars and memory foam mattresses, you might find it challenging.

Los Naranjos Jungle Retreat
Yelapa
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
+52-322 209-5246
losnaranjos5@gmail.com

When I learned that a retreat I was interested in took place at the edge of the jungle in Yelapa, Mexico, I was hesitant to go. Cabins without walls? Mosquitos? Possibly snakes? No thank you. But looking at photos of Los Naranjos Jungle Retreat gave me some peace of mind. The rooms were wall-less, but they were surrounded by beautiful flora. After gaining reassurance that the chances of seeing snakes were low, I decided to go.

I flew to the Puerto Vallarta airport, caught a cab to Los Muertos beach, then rode a water taxi to Yelapa. I was reassured to see tourists on the boat with shirts reading “Yelapa.” So this wasn’t the middle of nowhere. On the shore, there were restaurants and people sitting on the beach, where Los Naranjos’s owner and his dog met me to bring me to the “eco hotel.” As we left the beach, a dog bared its teeth, people passed by on horses, and we waded through a pond. We also passed a little store where I bought conditioner for my hair. We were still within civilization.

los naranjos jungle retreat treehouse

When we got there, I entered an (also wall-less) common room with a kitchen, a hammock, and cushioned benches. The dining tables were just outside. Then, the owner showed me to my room, which was up a ladder and had a thatched roof. Inside was a table and three beds covered by mosquito nets. Not exactly luxurious, but I wouldn’t be roughing it either. I got the only full-sized bed in the room (the others were twin-sized), and while the mattress was firm, I could sink into it a bit. The blanket was thin but warm, and the pillows were comfy. There were two lights hanging from the ceiling, a fan, and an electrical outlet by my bed.

The closest bathroom was up another ladder, with two toilet stalls, two showers, and two sinks. There weren’t any problems with the bathroom, though one quirk was that you had to throw the toilet paper in the trash. The staff explained that anything that gets flushed down the toilet has to be dug up from underground, since Los Naranjos tries to minimize its impact on the environment.

los naranjos jungle retreat treetops

There was a WiFi connection, but it wasn’t quick enough to get anything done. It took several minutes just to load my emails. There were a few cafes nearby with slightly faster WiFi, but none were adequate for fast-paced work. If I had to send an email, my best bet was to use my phone. The data connection was decent decent enough to do this but not to use my personal hotspot. Lesson learned: Don’t try to get work done in Yelapa.

My first night in Los Naranjos was rough. Even with my earplugs in, I heard roosters (which, it turns out, make noise all night), howling dogs, and music from a nearby house. Every time one of my roommates walked, the ground slightly shook. I woke up many times throughout the night and got up in the morning with a sore back. But my second night was better: My ears were getting used to the jungle already. The only remaining annoyance was having to navigate through the dark (and I do mean dark — I needed a flashlight) to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The mosquito net protected my bed, but I got my share of bites during the day. Thankfully, I didn’t see any snakes.

The surrounding village was adorable, with little Mexican shops and restaurants owned by local families, the beach a 15 minute walk away, and a hiking trail leading to a waterfall. I had all my meals at Los Naranjos, though. They were a delicious mix of fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs from chickens on the resort grounds, and fish caught from a nearby river.

If you’re a fan of the outdoors, you’ll likely find Los Naranjos a paradise. But if you’re used to hotels with mini bars and memory foam mattresses, you might find it challenging. Personally, I enjoyed jogging past wild dogs in the morning and seeing the stars at night, but I was counting down the days until I got a quiet room and private bathroom again.

 

Rooms:
Tech:
Family-friendly amenities:
Food options:
Deals and Activities Nearby:
Parking:

Suzannah Weiss

Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer and editor currently serving as a contributing editor for Teen Vogue and a regular contributor to Glamour, Bustle, Vice, Refinery29, Elle, The Washington Post, and more. She authored a chapter of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and frequently discusses gender, sex, body image, and social justice on radio shows and podcasts. Whoopi Goldberg cited one of her articles on The View in a debate over whether expressing your desires in bed is a feminist act. (She thinks it is.)

This is the End – Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the End – Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the end.

In the words of the somewhat famous and totally unpredictable Jim Morrison of The Doors, this is the end, my only friend, the end.

My family and I just completed a year-long overland adventure through Mexico and Central America. We left Virginia on August 1, 2015 and drove our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van – which we named Wesley – through Mexico and Central America. We’ve now landed softly at the family lake house in New York’s Catskill Mountains where we will take contemplative walks in the woods and frolic in the clear lake water before launching back at the end of the month into the hard work of being middle class Americans.

IMG_4287

Relaxing on the dock at the lake has proved to be a soft landing before re-entering the rat race of middle class America.

I want to thank Paige Conner Totaro, the founder of www.alloverthemap.net for hosting my blog this year and for providing R and me with lots of other advice and inspiration. If reading about our adventures has infected you with the travel flu, as we hope it has, you should continue to visit Paige’s site for great tips and ideas for individual and family travel. For example, Paige’s latest post describes an amazing Yucatan vacation rental for families, to host a family reunion, or for a girlfriend getaway. It may be too fancy a place to host a drunk frat brother weekend.

I also want to thank everyone who we met on our journey who helped us, hosted us, or just said “Hi.” I don’t want to start naming names for fear of leaving somebody out, but the amazing and adventurous people that we met are the main reason why this year will be unforgettable for us. Thank you.

DCIM103GOPROGOPR6413.

We only had these folks in the van for a few minutes, but I remember the conversation and we all had a few moments of fun with strangers, which seems easier to do when we are all foreigners to the place where we meet.

Finally, thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog. I know that sometimes I can go on and on with no apparent point, but I hope it was as much fun for you to read my blather as it was for me to think it up and write it.

At the outset of our trip, I attempted to interest you in what we were doing by posing three questions. Now, finally, as my last blog post of this trip, I will attempt to answer them.

Q1. Is Mexico as lawless as the media portrays?

A1. I don’t think so. We survived without anyone shooting at us, robbing us, or even frowning at us. On the contrary, Mexico was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the trip and we spent five months in various places there. It is one of the most beautiful countries – stunningly tall mountains, endless and mostly deserted beaches, outrageously delicious and affordable food – and has the most friendly people. I kid you not, even the machine gun patrols that drive around looking for trouble-makers waved at us. Don’t let the media fool you.

Q2. Does the Bright-rumped Attila still ply the skies above Central America?

A2. We didn’t see the bird in our travels through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, but we did see a mass nesting of sea turtles, hundreds of monkeys, stingrays and reef sharks, scorpions, tarantulas, dolphins, sloths, jaguars (at a zoo), and toucans.

R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.

R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.

Also, to soften the blow of missing out on the Bright-rumped Attila, we did spot its cousin the Bright-rumped Tanager one fine day while hanging out on the back porch of our workaway in Costa Rica.

Q3. Can a 1985 Volkswagen camper van handle the ups and downs of the Andes Mountains?

A3. Unfortunately, for reasons too depressing to get into again, we didn’t make it to South America so I am not able to answer this question based on an actual experience of driving through the Andes. However, based on our van Wesley’s performance through the numerous Sierra Madre ranges in Mexico, I have no doubt it could have conquered the Andes Mountains as well.

When we reached the top of one of the mountains we'd climbed, we just had to stop and pee

When we reached the top of one of the mountains we’d climbed, we just had to stop and pee

Okay – now that there are answers, I will pose a final question. This one was originally asked by the even more famous and less unpredictable Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin in the popular but not very rock and roll song “All of My Love.”

Q4. Is this the end or is it just the beginning?

A4. It’s the beginning. Even though the blog of our real-time overland adventure is at a convenient stopping point, the Vanamos family will not go away. We will be launching our own website – www.vanamos.net – very shortly.

On the website you will find updated articles about our experience posted weekly, the latest about our vantastic Volkswagen Westfalia – Wesley, information about preparations and budgeting for our year long adventure that you can use to plan your own trip, maps, what we know about border crossings, family travel guides for each country we visited so you know where to go and what to do, photos of me in a bathing suit to print and hang around your house for daily inspiration, and much, much more.

So stay tuned and let our end (of sorts) be your beginning. If I’ve delivered any message at all this year, let it be that there is a lot more to life than living 9 to 5.

Family Road Trip Through the USA

Family Road Trip Through the USA

After driving nearly 14,000 miles in eleven months to Panama and back, Wesley had delivered us to Laredo, Texas, with 12 days to go 2,000 miles to NJ for my niece’s baptism. With our spectacular border crossing in the rear view mirror, we found a Worldschoolers family north of Houston who is in the midst of selling their house and belongings in preparation for their own around- the-world-adventure. Israel, Michelle, and their three boys Joaquin, Jovani, and Judah, were gracious hosts who allowed us to use their beds, eat their food, swim in their pool, and stick around their house for two days while the epoxy we used to seal Wesleys’ leaky engine coolant recovery tank cured. This tank was the part that burst its seams while crossing into the U.S. and Israel talked me into taking the extra day to remove the part from the engine compartment and seal it rather than invest many dollars in extra coolant to keep the tank topped off during our drive home. It was a good call and has spared R and me a lot of anxiety during the long days of driving.

Houston family

The Vanamos team (sans Coconut) poses with our host family in Spring, TX – Israel, Michelle, Judah, and Jovani. Also missing from the picture is their 13-year old – Joaquin.

Since we crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. we’ve flown a butterfly path nearly 2,000 miles long towards the east coast along state highways, American scenic byways, and windy country roads. We have avoided interstates for a number of reasons. First, Wesley does not have air conditioning so we roll with the windows wide and the constant truck and SUV traffic on the interstate makes a lot of noise as it speeds past. Second, Wesley tops out at about 55 m.p.h. – I kid you not, we’ve been pulled over twice for driving too slow – and we can hit that just as well on even the curviest of backroads as we can on an interstate. Finally, the interstates are boring. There is more to see when riding the state roads, and the glimpse it provides into small town life makes us feel more connected to a place even though we are just passing through.

The hanging tree in Goliad, TX, where justice was delivered swiftly.interstate.

Justice was delivered swiftly at this spot in Texas.

J is amazed at the shelves full of fireworks at a store in Tennessee.

Fireworks store in TN. J imagines all the mischief he could cause if he only had the time.

Abandoned farmhouse in VA. Scenery along the country roads is more interesting.

Abandoned farmhouse in VA. Scenery along the country roads is more interesting.

We’ve hardly seen any people as we buzz by under the canopy of the country roads. They apparently only come out of their air-conditioned houses to mow their expansive lawns, put gas in their cars, and visit the ubiquitous Dollar General.  We can, however, smell the same roadkill as the locals, see the rusty cars and other stuff they have piled in their yards, and get a measure on what makes each town unique. We’ve driven through the Arkansas hometown of Miss Teen 2008 (Stevi Perry), saw the Mississippi swamp where Kermit the Frog was born, shared a cookie in Alabama with the uncle of former major league baseball player Josh Willingham, and been enticed from our lunchtime picnic table by a personal tour of the local history museum in Goliad, Texas, by staff member Marty.

This is the design on the town flag of Goliad, Texas. It dates from the Texas movement for independence from Mexico and represents determination. We will cut off our arm before we submit to your will.

This is the design on the town flag of Goliad, Texas. It dates from the Texas movement for independence from Mexico and represents determination, as in – we will cut off our arm before we submit to your tyranny.

 

We also made a few interesting stops. The Natchez Trace Parkway follows a 500 mile long trail formerly used by bison to go from watering holes in Natchez, Mississippi, to salt licks near Nashville, Tennessee. After pioneer hunters killed all the bison, it was used for commerce and ambushes by Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez Indians, Ohio Valley tradesmen, and cutthroat bandits. We stopped at the Parkway visitor center for Pioneer Day where Coconut stitched a leather pouch, J wove a basket, and I read the informational displays which I’ve summarized in the previous sentences.

J will be prepared for Basket Weaving 101 when he gets to college.

J will be prepared for Basket Weaving 101 when he gets to college.

Pouch making

Coconut learns how to stitch a pouch out of deer skin to carry her musket balls and/or headphones.

We also stopped at the visitor center for the distillery of the internationally famous Jack Daniel’s Whiskey in tiny Lynchburg, Tennessee. We learned that Jasper “Jack” Daniel died from an infection in his toe after kicking his office safe in frustration, further supporting an article I recently read that alcohol makes people more violent.   

IMG_6220

I wax poetic about Jack Daniel’s charcoal mellowing process while Coconut thinks about Pinterest.

I was okay to drive after leaving the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, because there were no free samples.

I was okay to drive after leaving the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, because there were no free samples.

We spent our last day on the road at Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA. It’s a nice park with a great swimming lake but our stay was overshadowed by the fact that the next day would be the last of our year-long overland trip.

The Vanamos team poses with Wesley in Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA. Our final day on the road before returning to Alexandria.

The Vanamos team poses with Wesley in Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA. Our final day on the road before returning to Alexandria.

On Monday, we arrived in Alexandria. Coconut and J were excited to soak up a few days at home with their friends before we set off to New Jersey for the baptism and then to my father’s lake house in New York for the month of August, but R and I were not excited to arrive. As we drove through town it seemed that not a blade of grass had changed, despite the fact that we felt very different. The weight of reintegration had already settled over us, and we know it will be more difficult than reintegrating after a week-long vacation because we’ve experienced something bigger.

We’ll keep our heads up. As Michelle, our Houston host, said to us – even though we felt like we were imposing in a big way, having us there, talking about our experiences and all the things that they have been excited about, was like infusing new blood into them. It renewed their vigor amidst the stresses of going to work, trying to sell the house, and daily living in an American suburb. Somehow, we’ve got to channel all the excitement that we’ve felt for each day on the road into building a new plan for our future – even though starting in September, the immediate future will be spent in Alexandria.

Rent a hacienda in the Yucatan for a great family getaway

Rent a hacienda in the Yucatan for a great family getaway

The flowers! A blush of red above, a carpet below of the falling flowers of the flamboyán trees that bloom with not wild but distinguished abandon. They offer just a hint of the spectacular warmth that guests receive when they rent Hacienda Petac in Mexico’s Yucatán.

Flamboyan trees at Hacienda Petac in Mexico's Yucatan

The flamboyan trees at the entrance to Hacienda Petac provide both shade and carpet as their bright petals drop.

Hacienda Petac is a vacation destination somewhere between a vacation rental and a five-star resort. Built from the ruins of a former sugar factory, today’s Hacienda Petac is a stunning compound with lush grounds, soaring ceilings, and everything you could possibly need for a relaxing vacation.

Let’s start with the obvious: Hacienda Petac is drop dead gorgeous. The owners purchased the property in 2003 and with the help of architect Salvador Reyes Rios they used the sturdy bones of the factory and elaborate administrative buildings to create a property that is at once historic and modern.

The grounds are lush in this rather notably dry area. Thousands of gallons of water are recycled through the irrigation system to create a diverse landscape of flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and stately trees that shade the property.

The possibilities are legion at Hacienda Petac. They really want to make the experience work for you and your group – a gathering of friends, a family reunion, small wedding, birding group or whatever group of people you can find to make the trip work for you.

When you arrive, you pull through the gate to see a sprawling compound before you, shaded by those welcoming trees. After a welcome drink of iced jamaica – a hibiscus tea – to cool you from the midday heat, you are led to your rooms by the lovely Colleen, who has been managing the property since 2010.

The first thing you’ll notice is the fresh flowers decorating the bed. It’s one of many small touches that indicate the attention and care that the staff give to every guest. Each room is different, but all include elements from the original factory. The soaring ceilings in the rooms and large bathrooms are humbling. The history feels alive, honored, and respected, though the property is completely transformed.

Let me take you through a day at Hacienda Petac:

When you wake up, if you’d like coffee you can hang a (hand-sewn!) sign on your doorknob, and within minutes a smiling staffer will have a cup of coffee for you, and by your second day she will know how you like it and will bring milk and sugar as you wish.

Coffee is ready when you are at Hacienda Petac

Morning coffee as soon as you’re ready at Hacienda Petac

At the appointed breakfast time (which you’ll arrange with Colleen the night before), you’ll go to the breakfast table. The table might be by the pool or in the dining room in the main house, but it will always be set with fancifully folded napkins and an artful array of fresh flowers. Servers come around with fresh juices and more coffee or tea, followed by a traditional Yucatecan breakfast like chilaquiles, chaya (a local spinach-like vegetable) omelet, or a more traditional US breakfast like eggs and bacon, with fresh fruit, granola and yogurt always available.

Beautiful table setting at Hacienda Petac

Every table is set with flowers at Hacienda Petac

After breakfast you have some choices:

  • Borrow some bikes from the hacienda and explore the neighboring towns. There’s a paved bike path not too far away.
  • Relax by the pool. Ah… the pool. The pool is made from the factory’s former water storage tank, where the stairs measured how many days worth of water remained. Today the pool has just the right mixture of shade and sun, and two hammocks where you can either sit with your feet dipping into the pool, or lie in the shade for a good read. Or maybe – probably – a nap.
  • Schedule a spa treatment. Margel, one of the local women employed at Hacienda Petac who was trained in massage and facial techniques by a local non-profit, has developed an impressive array of treatments based on traditional Mayan methods. They are offered in the dedicated spa building, where you can have treatments in private spaces either indoors in the air conditioning or outdoors in the fresh air.
  • Learn to cook or make a cocktail. Depending on your degrees of expertise and ambition, you might learn to make something as simple as guacamole or as complex as the multi-step local specialty, panuchos – black bean-filled tortillas that are fried and topped with chicken, avocado, marinated onion, and more.

For the kids, the choices are just as inviting:

  • Game room. In one of the former factory buildings, there’s a pool table (that can be easily converted to ping pong), card table, all the games you could possibly imagine, a sound system for music. And the modern abstract art on the walls? That’s the graffiti they found when the owners bought the place, framed and looking like Jean-Michel Basquiat masterworks.
The game room at Hacienda Petac in Mexico's Yucatan

The game room at Hacienda Petac

  • A kid-friendly cooking class – The kitchen staff leads the kids in making fresh fruit popsicles they can eat later in the day.
  • Arts and crafts – The kids can make a piñata that they can break open on their last night at the hacienda.
  • Explore! Kids can ask for an archaeology map that will take them on a tour of the property that ends with finding a Mayan shard.

 

There is good, fast wifi coverage throughout the property, though you may jump from one router to another as you move from your room to the pool or the spa.

The owners have very thoughtfully hidden a huge (80 inch!) tv inside a cabinet in one of the buildings so that if you would prefer that your children not know that it’s there, they won’t, but if you really really have to watch the Super Bowl or the World Cup or election returns or Spongebob (I won’t tell), you can.

When I returned to my room on my last night to find my bed again decorated with fresh flowers, I got a little teary. This time I knew the person who picked the flowers and the one who made the design and the one who made the bed and the one who did the laundry and the one who brought me coffee in the morning. I knew something about their stories. I knew all this hospitality is borne from a love of this place, a respect for history, a desire to provide a warm respite for visitors.

The Particulars

Hacienda Petac can be booked only as a rental of the full property, fully staffed. This is a good thing.

Round up your favorite people – the ones you haven’t seen in ages but you want to have hours-long conversations with over poolside cocktails or late night tequila shots or hibiscus tea – and rent the whole place for 4 days or a week.

All your meals will be included, along with airport transfers, a trip to Merida, a cooking lesson in their soaring kitchen, and my favorite: daily laundry service.Drop your dirty clothes into a bin in your bathroom in the morning, and by evening they will be cleaned, dried, folded and back in your room. Magic.

On your final night, you’ll have a dreamy serenade by one of the Yucatan’s most famous guitar trios: Los Tres Yucatecos. With the frogs and crickets singing backup, and the chalk blue of dusk darkening behind the Moorish arches of the hacienda’s main house, you will hang on every note that rings from each guitar, wishing this night didn’t have to be your last.

One thing is without a doubt, if you rent Hacienda Petac for yourself and your family, you will be well cared for.

I was a guest of the Hacienda Petac and Yucatan Tourism, but I would be singing their praises even if I weren’t. My opinions are my own.

Pin this so you won’t forget!

Rent Hacienda Petac in the Yucatan for a great family getaway - www.alloverthemap.net

Learn more about other hacienda hotels in the Yucatan in my article on TravelMamas, where I blog as the Startup TravelMama.

A Spectacular Border Crossing

A Spectacular Border Crossing

On Monday we crossed the border from Mexico to the United States at Laredo, Texas. This is the same border crossing we used in August 2015 to get from the US to Mexico to begin our year-long overland adventure. We would have liked to take a different route back to see new things but our second choice of crossing, at Brownsville, TX, is only accessible by Mexico Route 101. This road was recently dubbed the most dangerous highway in Mexico by NPR due to the proliferance of kidnappings and carjackings by bandits and organized crime gangs.

We thought that being left naked in the desert would be a bad way to end our year of overland travel, though honestly, everything we have with us is threadbare from a year of constant use so would likely have no value to anyone. Only Wesley, our 1985 VW Westfalia, which has a brand new coat of paint and sparkles like a Kristy McNichol smile from “Little Darlings” would attract any attention.

So we chose Laredo again. And even though we’ve done many border crossings since last August and they’ve lost their intimidation factor, we were still a little nervous because of the 20 kilos of pure Colombian powder, the two migrants, the satchelful of weapons, and the copy of “The Great Shark Hunt,” Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo commentary on American politics that we had in the roof box.

Things got even more interesting when we pulled up to Aduana (Mexican Customs) in Nuevo Laredo (on the Mexican side of the border) to cancel our temporary vehicle import permit. The line was longer than anything Tony Montana would have contemplated and the temperature was 115 degrees. To ratchet things up a notch, we got conflicting advice from Mexican Customs officials about whether we needed to have our passports stamped out of Mexico (we opted for the stamp). Finally, with our paperwork complete and after a possibly illegal U-Turn against oncoming traffic, we found ourselves in another long line to cross the bridge over the Rio Grande to the US.

 

You can buy anything while waiting in traffic to cross the border, even a large wooden carving of Jesus on the cross.

You can buy anything while waiting in traffic to cross the border, even a large wooden carving of Jesus on the cross.

By this time Wesley’s temperature gauge was reaching extreme levels and despite turning the engine off every chance we could, the red warning light started blinking just as we put our nose onto the bridge.

“That’s good.” I said. “It means it’s working. It’s not a problem until the red light stays on.”

“Screeeee!!” said Wesley in a high pitched voice which turned out to be engine coolant bursting from the hose that led from the coolant recovery tank and spilling onto the hot pavement of Puente Internactional II like so much green blood. Ah, the irony. After 12,000 miles and eight countries Wesley had staged a temperature tantrum on the threshold of America. We had overheated and there was nothing we could do but turn the engine off and wait for it to cool down.

Wesley spilled it's huts on the pavement in protest of our return to the States

Wesley spilled its guts on the pavement in protest of our return to the States

In true rat-race fashion, though, cars immediately started cutting the line in front us. Nobody stepped out of their vehicles and paused for a moment of silence, came to offer us condolences, or even blinked an eye. After all the mountains Wesley had climbed, all the narrow streets it had navigated, all the deserts it had crossed, all the memories it had given us over the last eleven months, this felt like a slap in the face. So, rather than sit there and be a spectacle, we put Coconut behind the wheel and J, R, and I stepped out of Wesley like proud parents and pushed.

Being behind the wheel while crossing an international border was definitely not what Coconut thought she would be doing when she woke up Monday morning. But she stepped upon crunch time.

Being behind the wheel while crossing an international border was definitely not what Coconut thought she would be doing when she woke up Monday morning. But she stepped up during crunch time.

Despite our best efforts, though, we couldn’t push fast enough to keep the gap with the car in front of us tight enough so that people couldn’t continue to edge in. Heartless bastards! Then, further solidifying the respect we feel for the country and people we were leaving, a Mexican woman stepped out of the air conditioned car behind us and put herself between us and the car in front like a linebacker stepping into a hole between the tackles that was there only a moment before. Now we could inch our way towards the border like everyone else!

Wesley, with crossed seven countries and wears their flags like badges of honor but needed to be coerced to return to the States.

Wesley crossed seven countries and wears their flags like badges of honor but needed to be coerced to return to the States.

After several minutes of this situation, another Mexican offered to pull in front and tow us with a rope. This worked perfectly until he ran out of gas and had to remove the towline from his rear bumper, where it was attached to us, and place it on his front bumper so another Mexican guy he had flagged down could tow him.

Wesley was towed across the bridge, until . . .

Wesley was towed across the bridge, until . . .

. . . the car towing us ran out of gas and became the tow-ee.

. . . the car towing us ran out of gas and became the tow-ee.

By this time, though, we had pushed and been pulled to within thirty yards of the checkpoint (no longer thinking in meters as measurements in our minds went from metric to imperial halfway across the bridge.) However, the final approach was up a slight grade and Coconut, who was now pushing so she wouldn’t get arrested for driving underage, slipped because she couldn’t get enough purchase on the oil-slick tarmac to push Wesley across the finish line. The moment of truth had come. R turned the ignition key and Wesley roared back to life. R gunned the engine to finish strong but just as we were about to throw up our arms so the tape could break across our chests like we had run a 12,000 mile marathon, the customs officer put an orange cone down and walked away. Shift change.

R turned off the engine rather than idle and we waited, flushed and sweating like drug mules; adrenaline and fatigue mixing together. Coconut was so exhausted from the experience of being thrust behind the wheel to steer the van across an international border that she said she felt like crying. J was as red as a tomato and R and I felt time stand still like we were waiting in line at the grocery while the cashier changed the tape to give us a receipt. Rather than peruse the celebrity gossip magazines, we should have rehearsed her lines.

Except for a few miles in North Carolina and Alabama, and two hours the day before, I had driven Wesley the entire trip. We expected that I would be behind the wheel when we made our final border crossing and I had practiced how I would answer certain questions, not because we had anything to hide, but because some of them are open-ended. When the officer asked where we were coming from, we didn’t want to launch into a paragraphs-long narrative about our last twelve months. We wanted to be as concise, yet as honest, as possible. R was not prepared.

US Customs Officer, “Where are you coming from?”

R, “Uh. Mexico.”

“Where in Mexico are you coming from?”

“Uh. We drove all over. This time we were in San Miguel de Allende for about a month.”

“You were in Mexico for a month?”

“This time. We were here for about three months before.”

“You’ve been in Mexico before?”

“No, this was the first time.”

Pause. “Where are you going?”

“To Virginia.”

Pause. Officer pokes his head into the driver’s side window and eyeballs Coconut and J in the back. “Do you have any illegal contraband in the vehicle?”

“No. We checked the website last night and ate all of our fruits and vegetables. We have some cheese and salami.”

“Any weapons or alcohol?”

“No. We have a bottle of mezcal and some fruity kind of liquor that we brought from a vendor along the side of the road.”

In retrospect, R’s answers were so contradictory that no international smuggler would ever utter them, but so nonsensical that no border guard worth his weight in salt could let them go unchecked. The officer walked into his little glass booth and came back with an orange slip of paper that he stuck under our freshly painted wiper blade. “Pull forward to secondary inspection. An officer will direct you where to go.”

We pulled forward and an officer directed us into a garage where various other vehicles were in various stages of being inspected. One family parked next to us had all of their luggage on a table and two officers were opening suitcases, trying on dresses, and snacking on yucca chips. Another vehicle was being driven around by a US Customs officer and everywhere officers were walking around with those mirrors on a pole that you can use to look up girls’ skirts.

Oh boy, I thought. We’ve been living in this van for a year. They are bound to find something. A stray firecracker. A pocketknife. A withered piece of fruit. Which one of us should go to jail? I figured they should take R because she was driving, and really, it made financial sense for us because I have the higher paying job.

Fortunately, the officer tagged to inspect our vehicle didn’t appear to want to be bothered. He asked a few questions which I helped answer (i.e., Where are you coming from? We spent last night in Monterrey), got us out of the van, and poked around a bit in the living room before telling us we could go. I heard him ask another officer if he had made any lunch plans. Since it was about 4 in the afternoon and the guy had apparently not yet eaten lunch, he must have had other things on his mind than looking for contraband on a family of four from Virginia.

Fine with us. We drove away without anyone welcoming us back to the States or mentioning Wesley’s eyelashes – which were a big hit at all our other border crossings. We used dead armadillos as mile markers (I’ve seen hundreds of armadillos but have yet to see a live one) and drove a ways into Texas before stopping to rent an overpriced hotel room at a Days Inn.  Just another spectacular day in our year of overland travel.